No one yet knows all the facts surrounding the deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, but it’s clear that the State Department made a serious mistake. There wasn’t enough security to protect Ambassador Christopher Stevens. The Obama administration issued contradictory statements about what triggered the attacks. And days after the compound was burned, it was left so unsecured that a journalist plucked Stevens’s diary from the wreckage. Charlene Lamb, deputy assistant secretary for diplomatic security, didn’t help matters this week when she insisted that the consulate had “the correct number” of security assets on the ground. With four Americans dead, she should have admitted the obvious: It didn’t.
Still, it is disingenuous for members of Congress to express outrage over security failures after they voted to cut hundreds of millions in funding for diplomatic security last year. At the hearing this week, Representative Darrell Issa, the California Republican who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he was so concerned about the safety of US diplomats that he rushed to hold a public hearing even before the FBI investigation was finished. Yet he was silent when a colleague challenged him to help restore the funds.
The hearing, held weeks before the election, presented an irresistible opportunity for Republicans to blast Obama’s foreign policy record and highlight allegations that the administration tried to “cover up” the attack by blaming it on an anti-Muslim video. It is not entirely clear why the administration would rather blame a video than terrorism, as many Republicans claim. A successful attack staged by protesters inflamed by YouTube is arguably far more embarrassing than one staged by Al Qaeda.
But one thing is clear: Politics have pushed aside the real questions US voters should be asking: What kind of presence should United States have in the world, and how much are Americans willing to pay for it?
The plan in Libya was to have a small US footprint — the opposite of the effort in Iraq. Lamb said the reason she didn’t authorize more than five armed Americans to protect the consulate that fateful day was that Libyans were being trained to do it. Only time will tell whether that overall approach — leaning on local forces in such a chaotic environment — is tenable. US diplomats in Iraq were protected by Blackwater’s expensive private army. No US ambassador was killed during the occupation of Iraq. But the massive effort cost the lives of more than 4,400 Americans.
Intervening abroad will always carry risks, both for Americans and their foreign employees; Thurday’s assassination of a Yemeni man who worked at the US embassy in Sana is a grim reminder. In the future, the United States must limit the risks, but not try to eliminate them. US diplomats should be able to count on the best protection under the circumstances, which wasn’t the case in Benghazi. Still, if US embassies become fortresses, diplomats won’t be able to meet local people — a key part of their jobs.